There are a few names that are, as it were, staples in our lean education and in lean leadership. Michael Balle is one of those. His lifelong study and practice of lean is instructive to all of us as you’ll see in this interview. We’re grateful to Dr. Balle for taking the time to answer our questions and for giving us the opportunity to learn from him.
In this interview, among other things you’ll learn the following:
- What event sparked Dr. Balle’s lifelong journey in Lean?
- Why the biggest waste is improving a process that shouldn’t exist.
- What are the 7 practices of Lead with Respect (or Respect for the Human, in Toyota’s language)
- What’s his advice for those just at the beginning of their lean journey?
- What doees Dr. Balle mean when he says that “Lean is a Big Tent?”
- What is the core message of Dr. Balle’s new Book “Lead with Respect?”
Enjoy the interview and please read his Bio after the article. Also, feel free to read our other Lean Leaders Interviews.
Dr. Balle, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Could you please introduce yourself and your work to my audience?
Thanks for giving me this opportunity to introduce my new book Lead With Respect. I’ve been a student of lean and the Toyota Way for 20 years, and my – rather narrow, admittedly – focus has been understanding what it means to “make people in order to make products.” For ten years I studied the Toyota way of “making people” until I realized I had to understand the full sentence and now most of my work is in lean engineering “making products.” My lean interest has been the leadership and transformational impact of learning to lean-think. I now work with CEOs who want to change their thinking in order to change their company, and, a little known fact about lean thinking is that when you’re past the early struggles of understanding visual management (in particular pull), it actually great fun!
What first got you started on your lean journey? Was there a specific event that sparked your lifelong interest?
My father and co-author Freddy Ballé discovered the Toyota Production System back in 1975 when he was head of product strategy at Renault. He became obsessed with understanding TPS, visited Japan early, learned Japanese and eventually became Industrial VP of Valeo, a Toyota supplier, where, in the early 1990s he developed the first full blown “system” outside of Toyota in Europe with Toyota’s guidance. I was then doing my doctoral research on “mental models” and somehow ended up studying how Toyota engineers worked with Valeo’s manufacturing engineers to lean a car indicator line. The pace of change defied anything I had imagined or heard of as a sociology student and I kept badgering the Toyota guys to disclose their method. “We haven’t one,” they would answer, “we solve one problem after the next.” I could see that, but still I was looking for a manual, until the head engineer, exasperated, once told me: we do have one golden rule, we make people before we make parts. I was hooked, and have spent an entire career trying to figure that out.
If that was what sparked my interest then, it wasn’t, however, the most interesting part of this experiment. After two years or so of work, the line’s quality, lead-time and productivity had improve radically. Productivity was 30% better than what it had been and Toyota never asked for any of it back. But let’s consider that. Labor cost in any product is hardly more than 10 to 15% of the total cost of the product. So 30% is impressive, but 30% of 10% is about 3% of the total cost, not to be looked down on, but nothing to turn cartwheels about either. The truly amazing thing that then happened was a at product renewal time – from the learning through improving the line, Toyota engineers and the supplier engineers came up with a new indicator for 27% less total cost, and then Toyota split the difference with the supplier. This was radical cost reduction. This is when I saw the real potential of lean – the making products part as well as making people part. They could never have reached that cost improvement without all the hard work people had put on the line. I had stumbled on value analysis (improve products in production) and value engineering (improve the next product at design stage: where the real power of lean thinking lies.
You recently published Lead with Respect. Can you tell my audience about the book?
Lean is loosely based on The Toyota Way (very loosely, Art might say) – we built the lean movement to learn from Toyota’s unique way of doing things back in the 1970s and 1980s and see how this applies to other industries and situation (Toyota now is a different place). From the very start, Toyota’s system was built on Just-in-time on one hand (Jidoka being originally included in that) and something mysterious called respect-for-humans on the other. For years I’d been trying to figure this second part out. It was always there under the surface, but never quite explicit until then Toyota chairman Fujio Cho published his Toyota Way.
It was clear from the start that mechanistic way “lean manufacturing” programs developed were missing something. I watched my father invent most of the toolkit of such programs as an automotive CEO, and indeed, helped with some of it to design “systems”: the kaizen events, the roadmaps, the maturity audits, the whole shebang. Yet, as I worked with my father I realized that, to him, the “system” was only a prop, a scaffolding as we’d say in learning theory. His obsession was with developing engineers, site managers, group leaders and team leaders – something we’ve tried to convey in our previous two books The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager.
Respect is about committing to the company’s success through each person’s success. Employees have a right to succeed, not an obligation. Employees don’t come to work to face accidents or harassment. It’s the management’s job to develop their autonomy and to find them work to the full use of their abilities. Lead with respect is the leadership model to create a working environment where objectives are reached by developing people.
With Lead With Respect we felt that we should focus more directly on the mysterious notion of “respect” in the lean sense. We feel that teaching lean thinking across a company requires a certain style of leadership. The good news is that these are not the usual leadership “inborn” traits, but leadership attitudes and behaviors that can be learned and taught. So the book follows the most unlikely candidate for senior leadership, Andy Ward from the previous book The Lean Manager in becoming a lean leader and now having to teach others. Of course, he half fumbles the job at first, but eventually gets in right. His struggles with learning to lead with respect and teach it to another CEO are the opportunity to detail the core concepts and practices of what we believe leading with respect mean in a lean sense – a lot of it has to do with translating business-level challenges into daily problem solving for team members through visual control, and then learning to see the impact at business level of the difficulties operators face and the initiatives they take in solving those.
If you were speaking to a hard-headed, results-only manager, what would you say to spark interest in your message and your book?
How well has the hard-headed results only approached worked for you so far? I was told a proverb in Africa: if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. Lead with respect is a way to remain as hard-headed and results focused as before and engage all employees in becoming leaders for their job as well, by developing their technical expertise and their ability to work with each other, across boundaries, so that we can go far together.
There’s an old Bible story that speaks of the condition of the soil: some are fertile and some are hard, where nothing can grow. Is the message of Lean and respect for people worth sharing to ears that aren’t ready to hear? I hope you don’t mind the religious analogy here.
Biblical is definitely above my pay grade, but I hear the sentiment. Sure, some people “get it” and some don’t. Trouble is we never know who is whom and what people say about their interest in lean has to meet the acid test of kaizen with value-adding employees, where the rubber meets the road (ie, where the employee touches the product or handles the service). On the other hand, people don’t know what they don’t know, which is why we write books and public speaking to try to get the message out.
Personally, I have to confess this has never troubled me much. I see lean as a thinking practice to become more competitive and heal work relationships. I’m know as a rather hardcore lean guy so most people I work are already committed to learning lean thinking. Precicely because it is about becoming more competitive, why should we bother about the people who don’t want to go there – it’s a free world! What sometimes gives you a tooth ache is “fake” lean, seeing managers burden their companies with lean programs and damage relationships even further in the name of “lean”, which gives lean a bad name and doesn’t help anybody, but again, what can you do other than go out there and share your own beliefs? The most compelling argument might win the day, but selling the hight-and-narrow road is always harder than telling people to do what they’ve always done and call it lean instead. It’s a conundrum, for sure.
I interviewed Liker recently in which he shared his viewpoint on Kata and how Kata contradicted what he understood as accepted truths in lean, such as root cause analysis. Dr. Liker argued with the fact that root cause analysis may or may not be included. He found the idea of not including root cause analysis somewhat disturbing. What do you think?
I’m a fan of Mike’s book but have little personal experience about kata myself, so really I wouldn’t know. My take on this is that what matters is seeking root cause, not necessarily finding it. Maybe I’m not doing this right but cases of finding something that looks like a root cause are rare. To my mind, root cause is when we’ve finally identified the error in the engineer’s calculation or model that creates the waste we’ve been investigating. But then again, you could ask “why was this error there? How come no one spotted it before?” and so on. If I had to sum up lean thinking practice on the shop floor it would be: visualize processes to reveal problems, learn to express these problems precisely, seek root cause, study countermeasure. Seeking root cause is, to my mind, a key part of the thinking process. Finding root causes, well, that’s another matter…
Art Smalley and I had a good discussion on a concern we both share: value stream mapping. What are your thoughts?
I remember at some point in the nineties when the supplier’s engineers where trying to figure out how to mix straight pull and planning for complex parts mix on an injection press, coached by a Toyota sensei. At some point the sensei pulled out a thin book with MIFAs in it (Material and Information Flow Analysis diagrams) to check the standard on the parts conveyance set-up. The moment the French engineers saw the flow and information diagrams, they started begging the sensei to teach them this amazing tool, but the sensei wouldn’t, arguing that if he did, they’d misuse it radically.
This left every one in a huff at the time, and then Learning To See was published and we know what happened, the sensei was right. The MIFA or the VSM (not quite the same when you look in the details) are a graphic part of a lead-time analysis, no more, no less. The aim is to reduce lead-time, and to do so it’s very helpful to map how component flows and information flows interact and to draw out the next step process. VSM is a great tool, and one that, to some extent, created the lean movement, but, again, it’s a tool – when the finger (VSM) points at the moon (lead-time reduction), it’s the moon you should look at, not the finger.
Again, I have to confess I do use Value Stream Mapping, albeit rarely, when I want to demonstrate a flow point – it’s a great tool to show flow if you can, pull if you can’t. Occasionally, I’ll get into drawing MIFAs when the plant is mature enough. Mostly though, I suspect the wrong use of tools is born of the confusion between lean thinking and lean implementation. I am fortunate to count Dan Jones as my mentor, and I think Lean Thinking was a remarkably insightful book. It doesn’t talk about all the lean systems you come across these days, with their VSMs, Kaizen Blitzes, Roadmaps, Maturity Audits and so on. It talks about how some very senior managers started thinking differently by adopting lean thinking and as a result transformed their vision and their companies: to understand is to act.
As I see them, tools are essential to, effectively as John and Mike put it, learn to see – but the point is seeing, not implementing. VSM shows you one thing, MIFA another, and setting up a quick and dirty Kanban yet another. The point is thinking deeply about what this means about building quality into products with a frugal process. The aim of tools is getting people to think about what they do and not, as I see it interpreted too often, force them into yet another mode of thoughtless behaviour. I believe that as long as we focus on the thinking part of lean thinking, much of the controversy about tools disappear. Tools are a way to think with your hands.
As Lean goes beyond manufacturing, it’s taken on a life of its own. There’s the Lean Startup Movement; Kanban for creative and knowledge work, and others. What do you think?
We won the war, we did. Back in the previous century there were management “fashions.” Now, lean has become dominant (yes, yes, there still are some die hard six sigma programs or even TOC guys around, some people will always live in the past). Ironically, this is not our lean. Much of the “lean” is see now is certainly not the lean that grabbed me as a researcher twenty years ago. It has become a bureaucratic, big company institutional lean where if you follow the model, tick the boxes, apply the tools somehow you become lean. Personally, I feel that most lean programs are muda – unnecessary overcosts added to the business. Lean thinking was about the developing the kaizen spirit in every person, it was dynamic, fresh, challenging, and well… fun.
Lean Startup is a great book, but I’m not sure what’s lean about it. The “Kanban” I see used by the agile crowd is a good way to visualize the progress of work but, to my mind, misses the very point of pulling with Kanban at, say, a stamping press. Visualizing the flow of work is fine, but the point is controlling we’re using the resource to make what is needed right now, and not overproduction (whilst we’ll be running out of what is actually needed) – Kanban! Oh, well, don’t get me started J
Don’t get me wrong, I love it that all these new ideas came out of lean, and am quite excited about some of them – certainly Minimum Viable Products has been tremendously useful for my work with engineering. On the other hand I despair at how poor we old timers have been at communicating the lean spirit of the very early tools. Kanban is a very good example as all the lofty concepts of Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda finally came together when Taiichi Ohno pieced together his Kanban system. Similarly, Eiji Toyoda’s suggestion system is a foundational tool for respect-for-people. Still, those of us who have worked hands on with Kanban and suggestion in the nineties, coached then by Toyota sensei, have made a rather poor job of explaining it and conveying the true import of lead-time reduction and building in quality.
So yes indeed, lean has taken a life of its own, and that’s great. As John Shook says, lean is a big tent. My feeling about this is that within this big tent it’s our responsibility to keep a bright fire burning so people can see what lean thinking was about when we were all discovering this stuff. Whether they choose to seek that light or ignore it is up to them, but we need to keep that light high and bright.
Let’s suppose I’m a manager. I’ve got my hour-by-hour chart and SQDC board. We’re doing daily Kaizen and all the people on my shift have been trained on PDCA and practice it daily. But, I manage only one small part of the plant. What advice would you have for me in getting the other managers to pay attention, learn, and adopt what’s working for us?
I see lean thinking as something akin to kung fu or taichi. First you read the books, then you join the group practice in the park, then the small student group taught by a master, then you ask the master for private lessons and one day he says you’re now so good you need to seek his own master up the mountain to continue and develop your practice. The only advice I can think of (other than stop taking this stuff so seriously) is to lead by example and develop your kung fu – your lean thinking. The better you are at lean thinking, the more sensible your arguments and the easier it is to convince people around you.
The head of Toyota in South Africa recently told me about an old story with his sensei. At the time he ran the Durban plant, he walked the shop floor with his sensei who pointed out to the many papers blowing in the African wind in the plant. He explained, well, this is Africa, we get a lot of wind. The sensei answered “wind don’t make paper.” Perfect kung fu. So if we practice lean thinking to the point that we can point any inconsistency in thinking and steer people around us towards root causes, then they’ll follow. I know that doesn’t sound very helpful for all the guys out there thinking “hey, I’d love to do lean but my management/firm/conditions won’t let me,” but I always think that if we’re that good at lean thinking, why can’t we be better at convincing others? So practice more lean thinking.
For those just at the beginning of their lean journey, what advice would you have for them?
Start with figuring out product quality and takt time. The rest will come. However, if you don’t get that right from the outset of your journey, you’re likely to misinterpret everything you read and misuse every tool you’re given. Apply lean thinking to yourself before applying to someone else and, well, start thinking deeply. Also understand that improvement can only happen within a relationship, so warm hearts first, and then sharp minds. Intent really matters.
Thanks Dr. Ballé. Is there anything you’d like to share with my audience?
Lean is fun! Really. I work with CEOs in France, in a fairly desperate and depressed economic climate where everyone bemoans high labour costs, taxes, government regulation and the price of tea in China. Yet, when the CEO practices lean thinking, we never discuss any of this. It’s all about figuring out where customers are going, what improvement dimension we should focus on right now, how to bring people along with the appropriate visual control, how to better train each person and how to get them to figure out better ways of working together by solving problem after problem. There’s not one dull moment, and not one boring moment although there is a lot of puzzlement, head scratching and feeling inadequate. I’ve visited many Toyota factories around the world over the years and the surprising fact is there are no two alike, and each fails to reach the lean ideal in some way or other. But the secret is that in failing to reach the lean ideal, you’re still far ahead of any competition. As Noble Prize economist Jospeh Stiglitz explained in his latest book Creating a Learning Society, the aim is to seek dynamic gains rather than static efficiencies. And you know what? It’s actually tremendous fun.
About Michael Balle
Author and Speaker. Michael is associate researcher at Telecom ParisTech, and holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. For the past fifteen years, he has focused on lean transformation (how companies use lean techniques to develop a lean culture) as part of his research on knowledge-based performance and organizational learning. He has written several books and articles about the links between knowledge and management (Managing With Systems Thinking, The Effective Organization, Les Modèles Mentaux), and more recently, co-authored two business novels published by the Lean Enterprise Institute, one about lean turnaround, The Gold Mine and one about lean transformation, The Lean Manager. He is a leading expert on lean transformation initiatives, and an engaging and colorful public speaker, experienced in running interactive workshops with large audiences. Michael is co-founder of the Projet Lean Entreprise and theInstitut Lean France.
Lean Executive Coach. In the lean perspective, knowledge, learning and doing can’t be separated. Learning means doing repeatedly so that intuitions turn into knowledge, and knowledge drives further action. Following the action research methodology, Michael is managing partner of ESG Consultants and coaches executives in obtaining exceptional performance by transforming their own company cultures through using the lean tools, principles and management attitudes. His main coaching technique is the “Real Place Visit,” where he helps senior executives to learn to see their own operational shop floors, teach their people the spirit of kaizen and draw the right conclusions for their business as a whole. He has coached lean transformations in various fields such as manufacturing, engineering, services and healthcare.
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